Psalm 96:1–2, 2–3, 11–12, 13
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
As we are gathered in this most solemn celebration, we’re like the shepherds. They were just doing their thing, when the world changed in a dramatic way. It wasn’t a change that could be seen or heard, or even felt. It was a spiritual shift in the very nature of creation. And a huge shift, a monumental change. It wasn’t a change that could be sensed, but it was a change so immense, that a heavenly multitude of angels were sent to proclaim the good news, especially to those who were poor, vulnerable, humble, and who would be the most receptive to believing the message, acting on the message, and spreading the message. What was the message? That God, the Creator, has humbled himself to enter into his own creation to free humanity from our sinfulness, to show us and lead us on the way to the gates of paradise, and to plant his kingdom among the nations of humanity. The newborn king has been born to us! Christ the King!
So then, are we like the shepherds? Have we allowed God to interrupt our status quo, our daily plans and activities, to stop and be amazed at his glorious light? Well, we are all here right now, we took time out of our preparations and gift wrapping and cookie baking and everything else, which itself is an exception to the ordinary routine of the rest of the year. So we’re here. And that is good.
When God interrupted their life with a choir of angelic multitudes, I very much doubt that the shepherds were the same after that. An encounter with the heavenly reality would be life-changing. One would be absolutely compelled to live life differently after such an encounter, after having all the hubbub of religious tradition taken flesh and visible and verifiable. The angel gave them a sort of sacramental message: an outward visible sign that makes present the invisible spiritual reality it communicates.
The invisible spiritual reality is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises of the long-awaited messiah, who is God himself: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!”
And the outward visible sign of that is what they were instructed to go see: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Now personally, I’m not sure I would need to go see the baby for proof. I think the fear-inspiring sight of an angel appearing with the glory of the Lord shining all around, and a heavenly multitude praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest…” That would be enough for me to be able to say, “Ok, I believe you!” And no doubt the shepherds did believe at that magnificent visitation of the angel choirs. Still, the shepherds went to behold for themselves the sign, the newborn king.
“So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed.” That’s the power of sacramental reality: outwardly, in the visible reality, it’s a baby wrapped in cloths lying in an animal feeding trough. In the true, spiritual reality, invisible to us, it’s God come as the long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David, the savior who is Christ and Lord.
And of course, how could the shepherds be the same after that? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.”
So then, are we like the shepherds? At every celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we have that same invitation as the shepherds! I am so inspired each year as our 2nd graders are close to receiving their first communion! They’re so excited, so full of anticipation and joy! If only we would approach the Eucharist each and every time with that same awesome desire, that same reverent appreciation and humble awareness that we don’t fully understand, but we know, that this is God… the Eucharist is Him.
So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we anxiously seek with such joy and humility God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, God who saves his people from their sins? Do we have the eyes to see through the bread and wine, as they saw through the flesh and swaddling clothes, to truly see the concealed reality of the true flesh and blood of him who is Christ and Lord? Do we make a beautiful throne for him with our hands or our tongue, reflecting the royal throne we have prepared for him in our hearts, in the center of our lives, from where he reigns supreme over us as his loyal and loving holy people?
So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we drop what we’re doing, and go to seek him about whom the prophets have spoken, and angels sing? And upon beholding him for ourselves, and experiencing the fulfillment of the promise of our forgiveness, our healing, and our redemption, do we return to the world glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen?
Of course we know this miraculous coming of the Lord at Christmas points us toward that even greater appearance of Our Lord on the day of his resurrection… which itself points forward to his resurrected and transfigured flesh and blood, soul and divinity, appearing through the power of the Holy Spirit every time the Holy Liturgy of the Mass is celebrated. So that for all ages, not just in spirit, but in the fullness of his humanity, spirit and flesh, he is Emmanuel, God with his people, that his people themselves (we) may be sacramental signs of his (presence in, and) love for the world.
How could we not go to behold him? How could we put other things before the supernatural importance of Sunday Mass? The weekly celebration when God comes to us anew, concealed in the swaddling clothes of the sacrament of the altar. He was underwhelming to the senses as a newborn infant. He’s underwhelming to the senses, appearing as bread and wine. Yet he is fully present as Christ and Lord. (Lord we believe, help our unbelief!)
Bethlehem in Hebrew means “house of bread,” and in Arabic it means “house of meat” (so I’m told). The Eucharist, the bread of heaven, the sacrificial oblation for the forgiveness of sins and thanksgiving to God, is also the meat, the flesh, of the incarnation of God most high. His supernatural flesh is true food, our holy communion with him, and with the whole mystical body of Christ, the Church. And then we go out rejoicing, spreading the good news of how we ourselves have been forgiven and healed.
So then, are we like the shepherds? Let us resolve that we are. Let us be sent from our heavenly encounter fully engaged, the thrill of hope, rejoicing, glorifying and praising God. That’s the shepherds. That’s the Good news. That’s the substance of the Christian life. That’s the meaning of Christmas. God bless you.